Discipleship & Establishment

Apart from appreciation offered by Christians of all (Protestant) stripes to Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, the word “discipleship” really began entering contemporary Christian discourse through David Watson’s book Discipleship (originally published 1981, I think). That came with a characteristic charismatic evangelical flavour, although influenced by some of Watson’s newly acquired friendships with catholic Christians.

It was complemented in popular evangelical reading by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which offered a particular evangelical Quaker take on the catholic spiritual tradition. This made for a fairly heady combination, which was always eclectic and reaching beyond any single tradition of churchmanship.

The language of discipleship, informed by this history, and an ever-widening embrace of devotional writings, not least those of St Ignatius and St Thomas à Kempis, has become the aspiration of “ordinary” Christian belonging. As such it has received a rather OTT reaction from people like Angela Tilby.

the language of discipleship to describe the normal Christian life does not stand up particularly well to scriptural scrutiny.

It would be an understatement to suggest that is not a view well grounded in the scriptural text, even if the language of discipleship is used somewhat differently from one author to the next.

However, the debate over the language, and the increasing use of it, does point to a sea-change in the way the Church of England speaks about its identity. The language of discipleship belongs to a gathered church, where belonging is conterminous with commitment. That sits poorly with talk of establishment, which embraces (among others) a sort of Anglican agnostic, or the Prime Minister’s description of himself as someone whose faith is a bit like Magic FM in the Chilterns (“it comes and goes”). To some extent this also surfaces as an urban / rural divide.

The question Angela Tilby raises may be an un-alphabetical example of the D-word following the E-word, but despite the hyperbolic language there is a real question to be pondered. Does emphasising the challenge of discipleship reduce the opportunity to welcome the less committed or enthusiastic? And does it simply emphasise a favoured type of commitment?